The 2009 College Baseball Hall of Fame class was announced yesterday, and it looks like a strong group (nearly all the inductees were on my ballot, for what it’s worth). Former Mississippi State coach and current Alabama-Birmingham assistant Ron Polk is one of three coaches who made the cut. The others are Branch Rickey (who coached Ohio Wesleyan and Michigan in the pre-1947 era) and NAIA St. Francis (Ill.) coach Gordie Gillespie, who has racked up more wins in his 57 years of coaching than anyone else in college baseball history.
The players on the list are all no-brainers: outfielder Joe Carter and righthander Darren Dreifort from Wichita State; pitcher Kirk Dressendorfer and catcher Keith Moreland from Texas; shortstop Barry Larkin from Michigan; outfielder Rafael Palmeiro from Mississippi State; and second baseman Todd Walker from Louisiana State.
Let’s get to this week’s mailbag:
WCC play gets started this upcoming weekend, and I think the title is up for grabs. LMU isn’t mentioned much, but with USD struggling a bit and Pepperdine playing inconsistently (losing to Chicago State this weekend?–how does that happen?), the Lions may have a shot. They just swept four games from Fresno State and seem to have bounced back from a 10-game (!) losing streak. Brother, check out Angelo Songco–he can rake! Your thoughts?
The Lions got off to a solid enough start—they were 8-2 after beating UC Irvine in a midweek game on March 3—before dropping 10 in a row, highlighted by four-game sweeps on the road against UC Santa Barbara and Hawaii. But LMU wasn’t getting steamrolled during that rough patch; five of its losses were by one run, and four other losses were at least competitive ballgames. The Lions have played 25 games in 33 days, and first-year coach Jason Gill said their bullpen was feeling the effects of the early-season scheduling blitz. Compounding the pitching crunch, the Lions have been without ace righthander Martin Viramontes, who is battling shoulder tendinitis for the third straight year (he’s expected to return to the mound this week).
But give LMU credit for rebounding from its 10-game skid with an impressive four-game sweep against the defending national champions this weekend, following by a 12-9 win against Cal State Northridge yesterday. The Lions are back above .500 with a 13-12 record heading into this weekend’s West Coast Conference-opening series at Santa Clara.
Gill chalks up his team’s turnaround to the pitching staff’s ability to cut down on its walks. Senior righthander Lee Roberts (1-0, 3.27) has exceeded all expectations to become a steady Friday starter thanks to his ability to command four pitches, though he’s far from overpowering. Freshman righty Alex Gillingham (2-1, 5.40) missed the Fresno series because of biceps tendinitis, but Gill believes he’s going to be a star for LMU thanks to his athleticism and arm strength. He already touches 91 mph to go along with a biting 79 mph slider and a quality changeup, and he has plenty of projection. The Lions also have a proven closer in junior righty Xavier Esquivel (2-2, 4.38 with three saves), who has struggled with his fastball command but does reach 93 mph.
Of course, if LMU has designs at making a run in the WCC, its offense is going to have to do much of the heavy lifting.
"Our offense is pretty underrated," said Gill, who left George Horton’s staff at Oregon to take over the Lions when Frank Cruz was fired last summer. "We’ve got a couple thumpers in the middle of the lineup, but other than that, we scrap. We’re hitting .295, but it’s a tough .295. They’re tough outs, they’re advancing runners, they’re hitting behind runners well, they’re sacrificing themselves. I had one scout tell me it’s like flies at a picnic: they won’t go away. I would say the resilience of our hitters is probably is the biggest deal, and it’s starting to give our pitchers a little more confidence throwing strikes."
The thumpers Gill alludes to are juniors Angelo Songco (.384/.543/.721 with seven homers and 29 RBIs) and Ryan Wheeler (.337/.432/.582 with four homers and 23 RBIs), who might be the two best hitters in the West Coast Conference. Songco packs serious power into his 6-foot-1, 195-pound frame—he slugged 15 homers as a sophomore last spring and then belted eight more with a wood bat in the pitcher-friendly Cape Cod League. He is simply one of the nation’s best hitters and is likely to go in the top three to five rounds of the draft in June. As good as his bat is, Songco would go higher than that, but his speed is just average and he’ll probably be relegated to left field in professional ball.
"I don’t think I’ve ever coached a swing like his, and I pretty much don’t coach it, I stay out of the way," Gill said. "In my opinion, he’s a legitimate big league hitter. He’s got power to all fields. He’ll drive the ball the other way halfway up these eucalyptus trees behind our fence. And he’s got pull power. He’s hard to pitch to because you can’t pitch him one way, you’ve got to change patterns on him because he’s smart and he’ll sit on pitches. The last guy I’ve coached that has similar power is (Sergio) Pedroza at Fullerton. And he can hit too, it’s not just power. He’s been pretty clutch for us; he’s gotten clutch home runs and base hits in key situations. He draws a lot of walks too."
The 6-foot-4, 220-pound Wheeler has more of a traditional professional profile than Songco: He’s a first baseman with a powerful lefthanded bat who ranked as the No. 29 prospect in the Cape last summer. He got off to a slower start than Songco this spring, but once the Lions have both players clicking on all cylinders, they will be offensive enough to bludgeon their way past any team in the WCC.
"Wheeler still hasn’t found his stroke yet completely," Gill said. "This weekend was a big weekend for him—he’s started to find it a little more. He drove the ball better this weekend and started to get to the pull side like he did in the fall. Those guys are dangerous, it’s just about getting guys on board in front of them."
Pepperdine and San Diego remain the teams to beat in the WCC, but LMU looks capable of making a run at both. The Lions endured a 10-game losing streak and a frenetic early schedule with their heads above water. Maybe they don’t have enough depth to get back to regionals, but don’t expect them to go down easily.
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